Last week, I had a conversation with my doctor as part of a routine follow-up (just one of the perks of surviving another birthday). I am proud to say that all my numbers are improving, thanks to a nutritional plan that he recommended I follow. Part of the conversation included my continued craving for the doughnut I had been denying myself. The doctor then stated, “Don’t think about these things as things that you are denying yourself of enjoying; instead, think of all the things you are providing for yourself by your restraint.” As I think about what he said, I remember that I would rather enjoy cardiac health and longer life than three minutes of refined sugar and saturated fat, however delightful those three minutes may be.
I am a big proponent of delayed gratification (the practice of foregoing instant, but temporary, pleasure with the hope of receiving a permanent, and greater, blessing). There is a problem that I see as I exercise discretion through delayed gratification: I tend to focus on what I am refusing and neglect to fix my gaze on what I am gaining. I know that I am skipping dessert when everyone else is indulging; what I need to know is that these tiny steps of obedience are enabling me to spend time with my theoretical four-year-old granddaughter drinking imaginary tea at her make-believe soiree. These are the thoughts that make baked goods (even the always delicious hermits) resistible.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I celebrated my birthday, I spent a few moments reflecting on my past 53 years and all the things I wish I had accomplished by now. I spent time ruing some of the choices of my youth (refusing to limit my spending in order to afford some savings, allowing myself to take shortcuts which lessened both my workload and my stamina) and regretted the nevers of my middle-age (never owning my own home, never travelling to Europe). These moments of reflection upon my dalliances with instant gratification have not discouraged me; they increase my resolve to engage in the sacrifices I must make to seize the future God desires for me.
So, as get up early to spend some time in Bible reading, I pray that I will not focus on the sleep that I am missing but rather upon the deep well of scripture that I am drilling for the day of spiritual dryness. As I spend time in concerted prayer, I pray that I will not dwell on the television show I am missing but rather the conversations with God and the concerns for others that I am finding. As I limit my daily caloric intake, I pray that I will not fixate on the dietary restrictions but rather the increased days that discipline will add to my life.
The only way I can remain ‘on track’ for the long haul is not by thinking about each painful step, but by thinking of the finish line. May we all finish strong the race set before us through self-denial and seeking the greater joy.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
Last Sunday, I spent part of my vacation visiting a church not far from home. The fact that I went to church on vacation is not my point in this posting. Where we went is also not my point, nor is my point the fact that it was a wonderful service. What I felt as I sat there, on the other side of the pulpit, can be summed up in one word: distracted. I was distracted by the worship leader’s broken guitar string (and how he was going to handle the set-back). I was distracted by the graphics on the screen (and the exceptional quality of said images that the church projected through two large television screens). I was distracted by those sitting next to me (my boys have nothing softer than a stage whisper) and those sitting a few rows in front of me (who were shifting in their seats randomly and consistently).
My point is this: we all, even when we have the best of intentions, get distracted by the things that bombard our senses every Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you hear the radiator hiss or the bench squeak. Perhaps, like me, you see the head three rows ahead bob back and forth or the lamp on the platform flicker off and on. Perhaps, like me, you smell the lip balm of your wife or the phantom aromas of pot-lucks past. Perhaps, like me, you feel an odd breeze or sense your leg falling asleep. Before you know it, like me, you are missing what the Spirit is saying.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. Luke 7:37
As I think about my distracted mind last Sunday, I think about the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner. In those days, eating a meal with someone was a big deal: it represented the importance of the relationship. As Jesus and the Pharisee were discussing any number of pressing matters, a woman comes in and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee (and apparently Luke) are fascinated by this woman, wetting His feet with her weeping, wiping them away with her hair and anointing them with perfume and kisses. Quite the spectacle.
At some point Jesus, knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts and his distracted condition, breaks through and tells the Pharisee a parable about forgiveness. This serves as a good reminder to all of us: Jesus knows our thoughts and how we are easily distracted, and He is willing and able to capture (and recapture) our attention to show us what we need to see. Jesus is faithful to His adopted siblings, pulling us away from our daydreams and off our rabbit trails and redirecting our thoughts toward His counsel. That is what I needed last Sunday, a nudge to ignore the behavior of that woman in front of me and focus (if only for a moment) on the Lord before me.
We all get distracted at times (even on Sunday mornings at 11:40 in Dorchester). It is good to know that God not only understands, but assists us in catching what we need to hear even when we are not listening.
The other morning, my mother-in-law underwent a procedure to treat her cataracts. At ninety-one, she was hesitant to have it done (she was unwilling to endure the pain, to be anesthetized, or to have a doctor mess with her eyes). After weeks of prayer and encouragement by a multitude of sources, she went to the surgical clinic and allowed the procedure to be done. The surgery was a success. Twenty-four hours later, at the follow-up appointment, two surprising developments took place: 1) she told the nurse that the experience was better than she expected, and 2) her vision test showed that her eyesight was greatly improved.
Worry is, by all appearances, a mighty adversary. It will tell us that the costs are not worth the gains. It will remind us of that one time, long ago, when we were mistreated and assure us it will happen again. It will highlight the adverse effects that professionals must legally disclose and tell us that we will be the ‘one-in-a-million’ to suffer. It will keep us up at night, make us lose our appetites and force us to pace the floor. Few know the truth, however, that worry is a paper tiger. Worry is only a shadow on the wall.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
As I read these words of Jesus, I think to myself, “Maybe I can; I am pretty good at it.” Despite my conviction that God’s word is true and that God grants perfect peace – complete contentment and wondrous well-being – to all who trust in Him, worry is a constant travelling companion of mine. Its relentless whisper rings in my ears, causing me to fret about everything from car accidents to broken bones, from power outages to excessive costs. I readily admit that this level of worry is not rational; it is nothing more than exhausting – of energy, of hope and or peace.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)
The remedy for worry is worship: to trust in the promises of our loving Heavenly Father for what we eat, what we drink and what we wear (as well as what we endure, what we await and what we hope to avoid). Worry is silenced when we rely upon God to provide whatever we need, whether it be peace or patience or perseverance. Worry is unmasked when we rest in God’s presence. Worry is defeated when we occupy our thought with the goodness, kindness and love of our creator. The paper tiger of worry is tamed by the authority of His name.
I hope that my quickly recovering mother-in-law (and I) will be able to see this truth.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 20.4 million veterans alive today in the United States, slightly more than one in sixteen Americans. This weekend, we commemorate their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their loved ones, as we observe Veteran’s Day. We take time as a country to recognize the efforts of the members of our armed forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy – as they defended our freedom in World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War and in peace-time service. We recognize those who are presently serving on ships and at bases across the globe, and we recognize those who remain at home awaiting their return.
When I turned eighteen (in the winter of ’84), there were no on-going war zones and so I was not compelled to enlist or serve. In a way, I feel that I missed out on something special. I was not willing to endure the hardships of basic training or the rigors of living in barracks. I also missed out on the camaraderie and support of one soldier supporting another, of one pilot protecting the back of another, of one sailor confiding in another or one marine securing the success of another. We must respect these servicewomen and men who see the cause ahead of them as greater than all they have left behind and are willing to bear the cost that cause demands.
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 2:3
How does that old camp song go? “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army!” Now, I am in no way equating the life-threatening peril faced by a veteran and the daily drudgery of a follower of Christ. What I am thinking about is what might happen if the kingdom of God had citizens who were willing to suffer as a good soldier. What ground could be claimed, what captives could be set free, if we, as followers of Christ, see the cause ahead of us – the redemption of souls through the furthering of the gospel – as greater than all we want to keep for ourselves. What if we, too, were willing to bear the cost that cause demands.
There is a great debt that we all owe to all those who are willing to sacrifice everything for our freedom. This debt extends from Jesus, who entered enemy territory to set us free from the bondage of death and sin, to every member of the military, who entered enemy territory to secure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ought to be grateful for the sacrifices that secure our freedoms and recognize the costs that others have made. May the followers of Christ have the same commitment to those around them that the veterans we celebrate on November 11th have.
For those who wore, or are wearing, the flag on their shoulder, we thank you.
Driving in Boston can be an adventure: the streets are narrow, turn signals are for ‘the other car’ and the solid yellow lines are ignored. I am typically the driver on family trips to the grocery store or school, with my loving wife in the front passenger seat. As we navigate the roads around our residence, she gently reminds me on occasion of people and vehicles that are dangerously close to our car. “Watch out for that car pulling out of the driveway,” she implores. “Do you see that woman with the baby carriage?” she asks. “There’s a truck on your left,” she says.
What my wife is pointing out are my blind spots. When she says these things and asks these questions, I am quick to tell her that I am fine and that I see everything she mentions. I am confident that I know where my blind spots are and what is contained within them. As I write these words, I realize just how dumb they sound: am I really proposing that I can see and process the things that, by definition, I cannot see, the things to which I am blind? What makes them blind spots is the fact that they are not seen.
We all need an extra pair of eyes, someone watching our backs, if we hope to avoid disaster. We all need someone outside ourselves, someone with a slightly different perspective, who will tell us the hard facts that we are unable to recognize. We all need someone who will see the trouble before it strikes and warn us (or, at least, enable us to brace for impact). We need other people in our lives in order to avoid becoming a wreck: physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally. “Watch out for increased sodium levels,” they will implore. “Do you see those red flags that your new companion is raising?” they will ask. “There’s a flaw in your logic,” they will say.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
In order for iron to sharpen iron, in order for the hammer and anvil to shape the blade and in order for the file to hone the edge two things are needed: fire and friction. Solomon, in all his wisdom, understood that we need the same thing, especially in the blind spots. We need fire; the healthiest relationships include elements of passion and purification. We need friction; the healthiest relationships include the qualities of proximity and pressure. In order to make it from one point in life to another without damage, we need a friend who is close enough to care and strong enough to say what needs saying.
It is my firm belief that this type of friendship is a gift from God. He blesses us with people who will point out what is in our blind spots because they love us and want the best for us. It is in our best interest to foster those who will bring fire and friction into our life, so that we can avoid the flames. I thank God for my wife, my second set of eyes. I pray you have someone similar to her with whom you can ride along.
Yesterday, at exactly 11:16PM, my middle son, David, turned 18 and in so doing became a legal adult. He is able to vote for the next elected official and enter into binding contracts. He is able to sign himself out of class if he chooses and he will now be reported by name on census forms. He is more than a big boy; he is a man, physically and statutorily. I wonder, as I reflect upon this momentous occasion, if he is ready for the adult world and if he has the character of an adult in the world today.
As I reflect upon his life, I pray that he will continue to develop his character of:
- Charity – David and I had the opportunity to visit the former Charlestown Navy Yard on a regular basis. As we made our way to weekly appointments, we would walk by expired parking meters. After a few weeks, we scoured the car for loose change (and then filled our pockets before we left the house) so that we could anonymously refill the meters. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Hospitality – David regularly invited friends to our home for afternoons of video gaming. He’d ask, on their behalf, for his mom to procure snacks and soda so that his guests would be cared for (they even ate, over a week or two, a case of Vidalia-flavored potato chips). I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Accomplishment – As part of your participation in the scouts, I remember the courts of honor I attended, celebrating David’s advancement through the ranks and his proficiency in certain skills worthy of merit badges. He has a treasure trove of skills and abilities that he ought to be proud of. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Titus 2:6–8
- Adventure – Through storming through the front door like a warrior or through playing in the driveway with abandon, David receive stitches in his palm on one occasion and his leg on another. I hope my son will, forsaking recklessness, will risk something to taste life fully. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Responsibility – one formative experience, as he is oft to repeat, was when his mom gave a “time-out” to David’s favorite toy (Dusty, the talking Vacuum Cleaner). With glee, he recounts that there are consequences to bad behavior (even when performed by the inanimate). He learned that he was responsible for himself and those he leads. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Whimsy – I have a picture in my office of my now adult son in a banana suit while volunteering at VBS. He also wore the suit at a recent PAX East Expo. It was funny, quirky and unexpected. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
- Service – David has been active in the church; as an usher, as a representative for the “Got Goat” program, working the sound board. He has utilized his skills in service to God and others. I pray that he will continue to be that kind of man.
May we all strive to be adults of character, as I pray my middle boy will.
Happy Birthday, David.
I would say that I am an avid follower of the Boston Red Sox. I watch the games (typically on television) and listen to all levels of commentary from sports radio. I worry when the bases are loaded with Yankee base runners and cheer when the team pulls it out in the ninth. I offer suggestions for lineups and complain about roster moves. I use “we” and “us”, not “they” and “them”; I have been known to say such things as “we are going to the playoffs” and “the bullpen lost us the game”. I may call myself an avid follower of the Red Sox, but I am not. I am simply a fan.
Merriam-Webster defines a fan (actually, a fanatic) as ‘a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to some interest or activity’. That is what I am as relates to the Red Sox. Whatever the outcome might be of a single game or the entire season, my life and livelihood are never disrupted. I will never get a million-dollar contract after a great year or cut after a poor one. I need not save the date for the day I ride through Boston at a Duck Boat parade. Alex Cora, the field manager, and Dave Dombrowski, the general manager, are never going to ask my opinion or consider my suggestions for the team. I am not part of the “we”; I am not one of “us”.
Some of us have a similar sense of ‘following’ Christ as we do ‘following’ a sports team: we can attend the game, or not; we can have strong opinions about how things ought to go, but they amount to nothing more than talk show fodder; I can say that I am a part of the team, but never put on a uniform or play my position. I do not attend the team meetings or do the conditioning work in the off-season. Sometimes we act as if all we want is the glory based upon the sacrifice of another without having to do anything more than watch when I feel like it. We mistake following Christ as nothing more than being a fan of God’s only begotten.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
So, are you a fan of Jesus or an actual follower? Jesus had a completely different conception of “following”. When we follow Jesus, it means a denial of self. We must be willing and able to refuse ourselves: our opinions, preferences, schedules and feelings. Then we are free to accept the Lord’s best for us. When we follow Jesus, it means taking up our cross. We must be willing to humble ourselves; certainly the cross of Jesus’ day was an instrument of death, but it was more than that – it was an instrument of dehumanization and disgrace (after all, Jesus could have simply said that we need to lay down our lives, but taking up our cross frames our acceptance of shame for His glory). Following Jesus will cost us everything.
But we cannot simply leave things there. Yes, there are costs to following Jesus, and they are dire and deep. But, as Paul proclaims, the gains of following Jesus are so much greater. We are shown forgiveness. We are blessed with adoption. We are given purpose and hope. We are equipped to live abundantly.
Follow Jesus, not as a casual fan but as a member of His team.